Damien Williams is a fantasy football enigma this season. I’ve heard him described as a breakout and a bust and everything in between. Some fantasy analysts have him as an RB1, while others are shouting from the rooftop not to touch him at all! The reason he’s so interesting is that he is in a great position to succeed, but he has never been asked to be a lead back in his NFL career. Let’s take a deeper look both into the case for and against Williams… starting with the bad news first.
The Case Against Damien Williams
The big argument against Damien Williams, at least that I have seen, is that his career-high in touches is 73. In fact, Williams has been in the NFL for five seasons and has totaled just 218 touches. There were 16 running backs that had more touches in 2018 alone than Williams has had in his NFL career. Dating back to his college career, he had 210 touches- 176 carries and 34 receptions- in 13 games as a junior in Oklahoma. His senior year he played just nine games and finished with 123 touches. So outside of one season in college, we have never really seen Williams shoulder the workload.
That argument factors into the other, which is that Carlos Hyde will be a threat and could steal touches. However, Hyde has not been the most efficient of backs in recent seasons. He has averaged below four yards per carry in each of the last two seasons, including just 3.4 YPC with the Browns and 3.3 with the Jaguars last year. He totaled just 10 receptions as well. While he does have an 88 target, 59 catch season in 2017 with the Niners, he has fewer than 13 receptions in three of his five NFL seasons. Hyde to me seems more like a backup, who can spell Williams at times to keep him fresh, rather than a legit threat to steal the job.
The Case For Damien Williams
The Chiefs running backs as a group finished with 97 targets and 82 receptions in 2018, which ranked tied for 24th and tied for 16th in the NFL, respectively. But do not let that low volume fool you. They finished with 922 receiving yards, the fourth most, and 12 receiving touchdowns, by far the most in the NFL last year. In fact, the second most was the Patriots who scored eight. Many people are going to look at the lack of volume for Chiefs running backs in the passing game and think it’s a disservice for Williams, but the truth is that the Chiefs backs were so efficient in the passing game, you could argue it actually led to less volume. What does that mean? With the Chiefs running backs, and offense as a whole, gaining large chunks at a time leads to fewer plays needed to drive down the field, but the production that we care about – the yards and touchdowns – were certainly there.
In fact, Chiefs running backs last year were the most efficient pass catchers in recent history. The Chiefs backs as a whole averaged 9.51 receiving yards per target in 2018, the most by any team since 2009, which is as far back as the stat goes. In that span, the closest team to the Chiefs was the 2013 Eagles, at 8.34 yards per target. The Chiefs were well over a yard per target more than any other running back group in this span. Much of this is because the Chiefs offense is so dangerous downfield. With Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and now Mecole Hardman, all possessing the ability to take it the distance on every play, teams have to sell out and have more defenders down the field, which typically leads to the running back being able to catch the ball with plenty of running room in front of him. Last year, Kareem Hunt averaged 10.8 receiving yards per target, the most in the NFL. Spencer Ware finished with 9.74 receiving yards per target, while Williams finished with 6.67, but that number was 7.50 receiving yards per target from Weeks 15-20, which are the weeks he was the starter, including playoffs. While that number isn’t as effective as Hunt, it still would have been the eighth best among all backs (min. 24 targets).
But wait, there’s more! For those questioning how much work Williams will see on a weekly basis, he played 217 of 314 snaps from Week 15 to 20, which equates to 69 percent. That is starter workload. In fact, the only RBs last year who played 69 percent of their teams snaps or more were Christian McCaffrey (91%), Ezekiel Elliott (89%), Todd Gurley (86%), Saquon Barkley (83%), James Conner (79%), David Johnson (79%), Kareem Hunt (71%), Dalvin Cook (69%), Melvin Gordon (69%) and Joe Mixon (69%). Not only is that only just 10 running backs, but all but Hunt are going off the board in the early rounds, with the most of them making up the first round. Still not sold? Well in that span, Williams averaged 18.6 touches per game. That would have ranked 12th amongst running backs in 2018, just ahead of Alvin Kamara (18.3 touches per game) and Marlon Mack (17.7).
Williams was trusted with the starter workload last season and played extremely well. In Weeks 15-20 he averaged 25.44 PPR fantasy PPG. There was only one running back last year that averaged over 25 PPR PPG and that was Todd Gurley (26.58). Again, you are not buying the Damien Williams who played for so long on the Miami Dolphins, but you are buying the lead running back on one of the top offenses in the NFL.
The Andy Reid Factor
Williams also has backing from Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid. Just this week, Reid called Williams the “full-time starter for the season,” and stating that he “earned the right to be that guy.” Reid did go on to say that Williams now has to go and produce, but the opportunity is what fantasy owners should be worried about. Knowing that Williams played extremely well as the starter last year, as long as he is getting the opportunity, it will lead to fantasy production. Additionally, he will not just be thrust into the role unexpectedly this year but will have a whole preseason to get comfortable in the offense.
Additionally, Reid’s top backs have always been productive in fantasy football. Last year, Chiefs running backs finished with the fifth most PPR points amongst all teams. In Weeks 1-11, Kareem Hunt was the RB6, before his season went off the rails. Hunt finished as the RB4 in 2017, and you likely remember Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, and Brian Westbrook dominating fantasy leagues under Reid for the better part of the last two decades. Williams not only has a great offense around him, but he has a head coach with a history of using one primary back and it leading to loads of fantasy football success.
There is simply far too much in favor of Williams to discredit it by saying it is something he has never done before. That statement is also not true. He has never done it for the course of the full season, but he was given the reigns down the stretch last year and not only played like an RB1, but he also played like a Top-5 fantasy back. He also has the full support of his head coach, who has a history of not only using a feature back but of churning out big time fantasy producers. You could leave all that on the board simply because we have never seen Williams do it before, but that seems like a mistake. If we had seen Williams do it over the course of a full NFL season, he would likely be a first round pick for sure!
Want to debate me on this? Hit me up on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio.
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Michael Florio is the winner of the 2018 FSWA Baseball Article of the Year and was a finalist for the 2017 Fantasy Football Writer of the Year. He has hosted video/radio shows, written for a number of print and web publications including the AP, NY Daily News and much more!
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